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Halton House, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire.

Halton House south entrance (Brunel Design Group image)

Here’s a strange place. Once the country home of Alfred de Rothschild, Halton House is now owned by the Royal Air Force and has made many a film and television appearance. Today, its mellow sandstone facings offer a warm welcome for junior officers during the day as they make their trek from the main camp accommodation a few hundred metres away.

Alfred de Rothschild (1842-1918) took over the Halton estate in 1880 with hopes of providing himself with a grand residence to match those of his brothers, brother-in-law and uncles elsewhere in Buckinghamshire (see the links below for more on the Rothschild family). A powerful and wealthy family which had made its mark in the world of high finance and international banking in the late eighteenth century, the Rothschilds were ambitious, discerning and driven. Attracting the attention of European royalty, the family soon gained important patrons in several countries where the males of the family could strengthen the family ties as well as the private purse. Alfred was the grandson of the first ‘English’ Rothschild – Nathan Mayer Rothschild (1777-1836) and was set to continue in the family business from an early age. His own personal connections with royalty were cemented when studying for a degree in mathematics at Cambridge as he would meet lifelong friend the Prince of Wales, Albert Edward (later Edward VII).

The Halton estate had the usual mixed history of ownership; the land belonged to the Monastery of Christchurch, Canterbury, after the dissolution it was bought by the Bradshawe family, then the Winchcombes and Fermors, eventually passing by purchase to the Dashwood family. By the early 1700s there was reportedly a fine Palladian style house on the estate, but by the end of the century it had deteriorated whilst the Dashwoods enjoyed their house at West Wycombe. By the mid-nineteenth century, the estate had been sold to Baron Lionel de Rothschild (1808-1879) – Alfred’s father. Upon inheriting his father’s estates, Alfred set to work improving where he could, but his desire for his own residence was great, and the Halton estate provided the answer with its sweeping vistas and command over the Chilterns.

The new Halton House, south view 1883

The architect employed by Alfred may well have been William R. Rogers who was the design partner in the banking

North Drawing Room ceiling vignette (author’s own, 2008)

firm. Yet, Alfred wanted something to mirror the style adopted by his brother-in-law who was completing Waddesdon Manor, a French inspired luxury. At Halton, the French chateaux style was clearly the dominant feature, but Alfred incorporated elements of Italianate, Scottish, and Moorish architectural styles. The result was a large house made up of four floors with an adjoining servants’ wing and winter garden. Inside, architectural flourish was and still is, everywhere; silk damask wall-hangings, parquet flooring, ornate plaster ceilings, gilded swags, frescoes and elaborate skylights.

Halton House Billiard Room, south-east corner (author’s own image, 2008)

It is the layout of Halton House that is so intriguing however, and it is possible to be misled by the size of the rooms simply by looking at the exterior of the building. The central salon, which rises through two floors to 31 feet, is about 48 feet long and 38 feet wide. To the north and south side of the salon are entrances to the garden and drive respectively with adjoining smoking room, boudoir, library and private sitting room spaces. To the west there is an ante room which once led to the winter garden (the latter was demolished in the 1930s to make way for RAF single officers’ accommodation), and to the east, the grand staircase. In each corner, there are large rooms designed as drawing rooms and dining spaces, each measuring about 45 feet long by 26 feet wide (see the billiard room, above).

Attic floor corridor (author’s own, 2008)

The floor above contains the principal bedrooms which are smaller in size to the corresponding rooms below due to the balcony which surrounds the upper edge of the salon. Alfred ensured these rooms were the height of comfort and the four main ‘apartments’ consisted of a bedroom, dressing room and plumbed bathroom – each with radiator. On the second floor, there are extra bedrooms once known as the Bachelors’ Floor also with bathrooms, toilets and dressing rooms. On the third floor (barely visible from the outside) are the attic bedrooms once intended to be used by the servants of visitors to Halton.

Alfred de Rothschild died in 1918 after a short illness. He had continued working in the family business until he grew ill, but had admitted to growing tired and isolated after the death of his brothers in 1915 and 1917. In his will he left a vast number of objects from Halton House to friends and family. The house and estate passed to Alfred’s nephew Mr. Lionel Nathan de Rothschild, because ‘he was the only Rothschild without a country house’, but it was rejected on the grounds that it was not suitable as a residence.

After emptying the house of its remaining contents, Lionel simply sold the whole estate for a nominal sum. Yet, it was not mere chance that the Royal Air Force came to purchase the Halton estate, since its military connection had already been established when Alfred was still alive. During the First World War, many of the staff at Halton left to aid the war effort, while Alfred attempted to support his friends in political and military circles by offering open areas of the estate for use by training engineering personnel. The house and grounds grew ever more decrepit due to a lack of daily care and attention. Worse still, Alfred offered the use of timber from the estate for the trenches in Europe. The old days of entertaining were over, and Halton House was changing. Eventually the training camps changed too and merged with the training schools supporting the Royal Flying Corps. By April 1918, this would be known as the Royal Air Force. It was only a matter of time before the RAF needed to incorporate the remaining facilities under Lord Trenchard’s desire for reorganisation.

Today, Halton House sits awkwardly between these two eras. Modern faces pass through, and yet the old grandeur has not really faded. The winter gardens were removed, some of the fireplaces were blocked up, and the plasterwork needs freshening up. However the house is suffering under great financial restraint. Many will see Halton House as a victim of previous financial mishaps and ‘disagreeable’ social changes, but for those visiting or training today, this kind of building must appear deeply attractive compared to the prefabricated huts and chalets more prevalent on military bases. Certainly, the house has been the backdrop as a television and film set of which the big names include The World is Not Enough, The Duchess, and The Queen but this money goes towards the big MOD pot, and only a small sum goes towards the actual station at Halton. Many rooms are in need of renovation, including the Salon which had its gilding covered in white paint during the 1970s!

Halton House today (aerial view as seen from the north)

I visited on a miserable wet weekend and made several dashes through the grounds in search of the old artificial lake. I was in good company however, as the point of my visit was to cheer on some friends who had completed their RAF training. With some waiting/standing around time, I took my opportunity to disappear on other occasions and sought out an impression of the house and its grounds. We all may prefer the country house museum, since we don’t have to think much about how the house functioned when it was fully habitable for a large family. At Halton however, there is a lot of leg work to be done. I poked my nose into places where I should not have been, and got my guidebook damp as I charged about the parkland! Needless to say, the Ministry of Defence often open up Halton House as part of Heritage Open Days in September. This is one for the more curious!

References:

Beryl E Escott, The Story of Halton House. 4th Edition. (2008)

Mark Girouard, The Victorian Country House. (1979)

Links:

Halton House website http://www.haltonhouse.org.uk/ and on Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halton_House

The Rothschild family, their origins and the growth of high finance, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rothschild_family and the English branch of the Rothschilds with a list of key family members http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rothschild_banking_family_of_England

Other Rothschild properties in the Home Counties with links to those including Halton, Waddesdon, Mentmore and Tring http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rothschild_properties_in_England

The French taste http://countryhouses.wordpress.com/2010/11/05/the-rise-and-fall-of-french-taste-on-uk-country-houses/

And for a bit of fun – MOD film locations archive http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/+/http://www.films.mod.uk/south_east/halton_1.htm

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The Baronial Country House; Castle Drogo and Sir Edwin Lutyens

          I read about Castle Drogo, Devon a few times as a student of art history, but that was a long time ago. So when it came to visiting a couple of weeks ago, I had no idea what to expect. We arrived at what we considered to be a fairly early time in the day, but being the half-term holidays, the ticket office was already busy. I then made the mistake of not getting a guidebook and hoped I could stumble through without having to ask too many questions. However, first impressions were fantastic, even awe-inspiring as you walk towards the castle building and see it against the drama of Dartmoor.

Castle Drogo from afar (Copyright The National Trust)

          Considered to be the last castle in England, Castle Drogo, was built for one of the twentieth-century’s wealthiest entrepreneurs, Julius Drew (1856-1931) who had made his fortune with the establishment of the Home and Colonial Stores. By enlisting the most sought-after architect of the period, Edwin Lutyens, Julius Drew was able to determine his vision of an historical dynasty through name as well as stone. The National Trust are guardians of this property and have made use of snappy sub-headings in their literature on the building such as ‘Inspired by History’, ‘Driven by Technology’, ‘The Aspiring Aristocrat’, and ‘Designed for Life’; all of which place Drew’s eagerness to exploit his family’s identity in the modern world. Castle Drogo was intended to reflect these notions of long-established nobility in a baronial style reminiscent of an ‘impregnable medieval fortress’ of the Norman Conquest. Its position near the River Teign in Devon is not a coincidence and Drew saw potential in reviving his ancestry and their possible connections with the area as seen through place names like Drewsteignton and a Norman baron called Drogo de Teign also known as Drewe de Teignton. Julius was to add an extra ‘e’ to the end of Drew in 1910, and so the founding of a ‘new’ ancestral home could begin.[1] Yet, for Julius Drewe to invite Lutyens to be his architect for Castle Drogo at this date was somewhat intriguing.

          Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944) was a gifted architect who had acquired a great reputation for creating luxurious country houses in the vernacular style with hints of the Arts and Craft Movement and later, the Classical style. This meant using local materials to create houses that merged aesthetically and almost morally with the immediate landscape. His clients were the nouveau riches; those who had acquired money through industries such as manufacturing, and the exporting and importing of goods. The owners of this wealth wanted to assert themselves amongst the older families of the landed elite and aristocracy, and one way of doing this was to have the traditional symbol of that ancient breed – the country pile. This was also the era of a growing glamour and desire for domestic comfort. The nouveau riches like Drewe did not want to forsake luxury for status, but demanded all the modern conveniences and had their houses equipped with central heating, modern plumbing, electricity, telephones and efficient kitchens. Lutyens provided these, and did so with great flourish. His previous projects had included Munstead Wood, Surrey (1896), Goddards, Surrey (1900), Deanery Garden House, Berkshire (1901), and Marshcourt, Hampshire (completed in 1904). The latter is the focus of Dan Cruickshank’s The Country House Revealed, 14th June, 9pm BBC2. All of these evoked a quiet romance and warmth with their old bricks, heavy timber beams, dark panelled walls and deep porches.

          At Castle Drogo, the modern innovations were set to be a major part of the plan, but it was the use of heavy granite and baronial style which would contradict all that Lutyens had previously envisioned. Lutyens was said to be dazzled by the size and scope of the scheme, and Drewe’s instruction for a ‘real’ castle. The site chosen for the building was a rocky outcrop overlooking the River Teign with the only route for materials and supplies coming from the east. To reach the castle today, you have to negotiate narrow country lanes and steep curves. Lutyen decided to draw from his experience at Lindisfarne and Lambay Castle, both of which had been transformed into comfortable homes under his direction. Yet, the designs for Drogo went through three phases and grew more and more medieval under the influence of Julius Drewe’s vision. Eventually, Lutyens was to write to his own wife Emily declaring, ‘I do wish he didn’t want a castle, but just a delicious loveable house with plenty of large rooms in it’ (3rd August 1910).

          The exterior is built entirely of granite, with some walls reaching six feet in thickness. Its asymmetry exists as a tool to suggest its development over time, as if the building had evolved throughout the centuries with every generation making their mark on the plans and arrangement. Indeed, Drewe had wanted a barbican or gateway into the courtyard entrance, which was built as a mock-up in timber, but never realised in stone.

Castle Drogo

The timber mock-up for the barbican that was never realised (copyright The National Trust)

His medieval stronghold was soon to become a financial drain, and many of his own plans had to be abandoned. Against the wishes and architectural expertise of Lutyens, Drewe did however manage to incorporate specifics to the design which included a flat roof and no modern guttering or windowsills. The architect created a magnificent roofscape, but attempted to seal the roof with a comparatively new and untried material – asphalt. By 1913, rainwater was already coming through the cracked surfaces created by the contraction and expansion of the concrete underneath. The Dartmoor weather was making its presence felt. Today, there are damp patches throughout the building. This is most clear on the north side of the Green Corridor on the upper mezzanine level. That we visited on a day of torrential rain probably helped make this more obvious!

          Perhaps what makes Castle Drogo seem more needy than other country houses (and castles for that matter) is its swift experience as that of a home. With the Great War in 1914, progress slowed, and skilled workers quickly enlisted, but so large was the slaughter of men that almost none of them returned. The Drewe family lost their eldest son, Adrian in 1917, and with him went much of the dynastic plans and architectural ambition. The final building was a third of the size originally planned by Lutyens, and by the time it was completed it had cost three times its original estimate. It is still lived in today, but only on a temporary basis. Its leaky roof has proved more than a perennial problem and its more cosy apartments seem static and eerie. There is a small closet dedicated to the memory of Adrian Drewe created by his mother which at first sight feels out of place, but once you have left Castle Drogo, the room has the opposite effect. The house has missed the chance to mature and realise its place as that of establishing a dynasty. It stands as a snapshot of a way of life which was a mix of aspiration and independence, beaten by the changing social order, high estate valuations and wartime necessities.

[1] Julius Drew and his brother William sought a genealogist to help further their claims and discovered that there was indeed a link to an Edward Drewe, Recorder orLondon who had owned land in the area certainly as far back as the sixteenth century.

References:

Castle Drogo. The National Trust, Guidebook (2009)

Olive Cook, The English Country House: An Art and a Way of Life (London, 1974)

Christopher Culpin, Learning from Country Houses. The National Trust (London, 1995)

Christopher Hussey, ‘Sir Edwin Lutyens, O.M, K.C.I.E., P.R.A.,’ Country Life, 14 January 1944.

Links:

The National Trust website for Castle Drogo http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-castledrogo

A BBC local report on Castle Drogo restoration, 2004 http://www.bbc.co.uk/insideout/southwest/series6/castle_drogo.shtml

Castle Drogo on Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Castle_Drogo

The Heritage Trail entry on Castle Drogo http://www.theheritagetrail.co.uk/notable%20houses/castle%20drogo.htm

BBC Devon report February 2011, with links to other information http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-devon-12414690

Short article on Castle Drogo from The Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/feb/17/in-praise-of-castle-drogo

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Buscot Park, Oxfordshire

       Deciding on an afternoon out and the difference between an £18 entrance fee or that of £5.50, I stumbled across Buscot Park in my copy of Hudson’s Historic Houses. So on a fine sunny day last month I travelled through some of the more quaint areas of English countryside to make my first ever visit to this intriguing house and its pleasure gardens.

       My first impressions were that this National Trust property was well-organised, yet amiable and undemanding. A feeling the National Trust are seeking to achieve ever more with their properties these days. From the ticket office, it was a steady walk to the house (which can only be caught as glimpses through the banks of trees) through the walled garden and up the stepped path to the open lawns of the south front.

Buscot Park

Buscot Park south front (author's own image, 2011)

 
       The house in its original form was built for Edward Loveden Loveden between 1780 and 1783. Small additions were made to the house after these dates but after Loveden’s death in 1822, his successors cared more for cultivating lands elsewhere particularly those already belonging to the family in Wales. By 1866, Buscot was eventually put on the market and was bought by the Australian Tycoon Robert Tertius Campbell whose own wealth had been made in the gold trade. Over-ambitious, Campbell died in 1889 leaving the Buscot estate in great debt, and it was then sold to Alexander Henderson, later 1st Lord Faringdon (1850-1934) a financier and politician. His son, Gavin Henderson, 2nd Lord Faringdon was member of the ‘Bright Young Things’ with staunch socialist ideals. During his ownership of Buscot Park the house was regularly used as a venue for fellow politicians and formidable art collectors.
 
 
 
       Indeed, most of  the pictures at Buscot were purchased by the second Lord Faringdon and make up the larger part of The Faringdon Collection – the combined collections of the first and second Lords Faringdon at Buscot and at a separate London property. By far the most popular of pieces in this collection are the Edward Coley Burne-Jones (1833-1898) paintings depicting the Legend of the Briar Rose in the Saloon.

Panel from The Legend of the Briar Rose (copyright the Trustees of The Faringdon Collection)

The beauty of these paintings are magnificently displayed as Burne-Jones intended with their extra inserted panels and gilded frames. Moreover, their drama instantly gave Burne-Jones the reputation he sought as a painter of medieval legend. At the time of their purchase and installation for Buscot in 1895, Burne-Jones was staying at Kelmscott Manor a few miles away (the home of his dear friend William Morris) so his involvement at Buscot and the placing of these paintings are a key creative connection.

 
 
       There are a good sample of rooms open to the public, each with information folders on the objects and art on display. Buscot has a great atmosphere throughout, and the staff were fantastic and approachable – even when my mobile phone made its presence clear on the stone staircase and I had to turn it off! The National Trust are eager to eradicate the past stuffiness of previous generations of guardianship at their properties, and at Buscot this was very prominent. But, recognition must be given to the staff and the present Lord Faringdon and his wife for the sense of continued pride in this property. This also extends to the grounds where the modern mixes well with traditional landscapes and concepts, and should be made a part of every visit if time is allowed! There are several tree-lined avenues to the east and the celebrated Harold Peto Water Garden leading to the Big Lake with its picturesque rotunda and bridge. At every turn there is something unusual set to catch the eye; perhaps a deliberate mechanism evoking those garden designs of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries which sought to surprise the visitor. To the west are the walled gardens which mark the start and end of the visit to Buscot and serve to remind any visitor of the lengthy programme of care the present workers and owners are undertaking.
 
 
References:
Buscot Park & the Faringdon Collection. Guidebook. The Trustees of the Faringdon Collection (2004)
The Pre-Raphaelites. Exhibition Catalogue. Tate Gallery/Penguin Books (1984)
 
 
Links:
National Trust details and opening hours http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-buscotpark
More information at Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buscot_Park

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